Lisa DeSisto, publisher and CEO of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, listens to East End Community School third-grader Lana Al Rubaye read Friday in Portland. DeSisto was visiting via the Principal for a Day program.
When I agreed to participate in the Portland Regional Chamber's and Portland Public Schools' Principal for a Day program, I thought it would be a fun day spent meeting teachers and students and learning about the Portland schools.
But what started out with simple intentions turned much more serious when the principal of my assigned school was on Page One of this newspaper Thursday, holding up the report card for her school, the East End Community School.
The grade was the worst possible. To quote Principal Marcia Gendron, "It's a big old F."
So what is it like to spend the day at an "F" school? Exactly the opposite of what you might think.
I arrived at 8 a.m. Friday, ready to greet the 425 students enrolled at the East End Community School, beautifully perched atop Munjoy Hill.
Principal Gendron and I womanned the front door (dressed in almost identical green dresses and black jackets).
I got spontaneous hugs from a number of students. Hundreds of warm greetings. A parent brought in a platter of homemade baked goods for the deserving teachers.
One parent went out of her way to tell the real principal she was "going to write a letter to the paper to tell them how wonderful the school is." Marcia Gendron told me later that that same parent is homeless.
In fact, almost 80 percent of the students live below the poverty line, and 42 percent don't hear English spoken at home. But school is bright, colorful and thriving, just like the teachers who work here and the students who show up eager to learn.
So what else did I observe?
Let's see -- a demonstration of how the sun illuminates the moon in its different phases, an art project involving modeling clay, an underwater watercolor and iPads, a pearl bead project that teaches fine-motor skills, a recorder recital, a yoga class, a walking club, a spirited game of "I Spy" -- and that was all before the morning bell! East End's unique Rise and Shine program gives kids 16 different choices of early-morning enrichment activities.
After I led the Pledge of Allegiance (which I had been practicing all week), a group of students sang the school song,"The Pride of Munjoy Hill," which was written by students in a Rise and Shine program. It was better than most college fight songs!
At lunchtime I met Tisha, a second-grader who took her job as cafeteria recycling monitor very seriously.
This girl was all business. At one point, she literally climbed into a barrel to retrieve an orange peel that should have been put with the food waste. Good habits are taught at this school at an early age.
The East End Community Glee Club performed a rendition of "Call Me Maybe," followed by a touching version of the Phillip Phillips song "Home," which brought both the real and the fake principals to tears when they changed the lyrics to "We're gonna make this school your home." At one point, the real principal turned to me and said, "You don't see poverty on the faces of these children."
The afternoon assembly featured motivational speaker Randy Pierce and his guide dog, the Mighty Quinn.
Pierce, who is completely blind, is a member of the elite Four Thousand Footer Club, having climbed all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-foot peaks in one season. Only 46 sighted people had achieved this feat before Pierce, and only two dogs before Quinn.
Did Pierce's message on overcoming adversity and not being held back by stereotypes ring loud and clear to this school now faced with the obstacle of overcoming their F? Based on the dozens of kids eager to ask questions, I say "yes." No one is letting that grade define them or hold them back.
Every student I met was engaged and ready to learn. They were eager to share their progress in math and reading with me. Hands went up when a fourth-grade teacher asked, "Who wants to share their poem with our principal?"
Principal Gendron asked one of the fifth-graders to give me advice on how to be a good principal. Abdi didn't miss a beat, saying, "Get out!"
At first, I was taken aback; then he quickly followed up and said, "Get out of your office and talk to the kids." This is good advice for not just for the principal but for every CEO who participated in this eye-opening program. It made me realize I spend too much time behind my desk in my office.
So Monday morning, I am going to greet all of the employees here at MaineToday Media because on Friday, this principal was also a student.
To the staff and students at the East End Community School, thank you for a very special day. I have a new grading system for you. It goes from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. And I give you a well-deserved 11!
Lisa DeSisto is publisher and CEO of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. She can be contacted at: